Osbert Sitwell

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Sir Osbert Sitwell
Born Francis Osbert Sachverell Sitwell
(1892-12-06)6 December 1892
London, England
Died 4 May 1969(1969-05-04) (aged 76)
near Florence, Italy
Occupation Writer
Period 1919–1962
Partner(s) David Horner
Relative(s) George Sitwell (father)
Edith Sitwell (sister)
Sacheverell Sitwell (brother)

Sir Francis Osbert Sacheverell Sitwell, 5th Baronet (6 December 1892 – 4 May 1969) was an English writer. His elder sister was Edith Sitwell and his younger brother was Sacheverell Sitwell; like them he devoted his life to art and literature.

Early life[edit]

Sitwell was born on 6 December 1892 at 3 Arlington Street, London. His parents were Sir George Reresby Sitwell, fourth baronet, genealogist and antiquarian, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison). He grew up in the family seat at Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, and at Scarborough, and went to Ludgrove School, then Eton College from 1906 to 1909. For many years his entry in Who's Who contained the phrase "Educ: during the holidays from Eton." In 1911 he joined the Sherwood Rangers but, not cut out to be a cavalry officer, transferred to the Grenadier Guards at the Tower of London from where, in his off-duty time, he could frequent theatres, art galleries, and the like.

Army[edit]

Late in 1914 Sitwell's civilised life was exchanged for the trenches of France near Ypres (Belgium). It was here that he wrote his first poetry, describing it as "Some instinct, and a combination of feelings not hitherto experienced united to drive me to paper". "Babel" was published in The Times on 11 May 1916. In the same year, he began literary collaborations and anthologies with his brother and sister, the trio being usually referred to simply as the Sitwells.

Political career[edit]

In 1918 he left the Army with the rank of Captain, and contested the 1918 general election as the Liberal Party candidate for Scarborough and Whitby, finishing second. Later he moved towards the political right, though politics were very seldom explicit in his writings.

Writing career[edit]

Sitwell devoted himself to poetry, art criticism and controversial journalism. Together with his brother, he sponsored a controversial exhibition of works by Matisse, Utrillo, Picasso and Modigliani. The composer William Walton also greatly benefited from his largesse (though the two men afterwards fell out) and Walton's cantata Belshazzar's Feast was written to Sitwell's libretto. He published two books of poems: Argonaut and Juggernaut (1919) and At the House of Mrs Kinfoot (1921). In the mid-1920s he met David Horner who was his lover and companion for most of his life.[1]

Works[edit]

Sitwell's first work of fiction, Triple Fugue, was published in 1924, and visits to Italy and Germany produced Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (1925). His first novel, Before the Bombardment (1926), set in an out-of-season hotel, was well reviewed – Ralph Straus writing for Bystander magazine called it 'a nearly flawless piece of satirical writing', and Beverley Nichols praised 'the richness of its beauty and wit'.[2] His subsequent novel The Man Who Lost Himself (1929) was an altogether different affair and did not receive the same critical acclaim. However, for Osbert Sitwell it was an attempt to take further the techniques that he had experimented with in his début, and he ventured to explain this in one challenging sentence in his Preface[3] when he said: "Convinced that movement is not in itself enough, that no particular action or sequence of actions is in itself of sufficient concern to dare lay claim to the intelligent attention of the reader, that adventures of the mind and soul are more interesting, because more mysterious, than those of the body, and yet that, on the other hand, the essence does not reside to any much greater degree in the tangle of reason, unreason, and previous history, in which each action, event and thought is founded, but is to be discovered, rather, in that balance, so difficult to achieve, which lies between them, he has attempted to write a book which might best be described as a Novel of Reasoned Action". Re-edited over three quarters of a century after its initial publication, The Man Who Lost Himself has found new popularity as an idiosyncratic mystery novel. Sir Osbert Sitwell, sure in himself of the techniques he was exercising, went on to write several further novels, including Miracle on Sinai (1934) and Those Were the Days (1937) neither of which received the same glowing reviews as his first. A collection of short stories Open the Door (1940), his fifth novel A Place of One's Own (1940), his Selected Poems (1943) and a book of essays Sing High, Sing Low (1944) were reasonably well received. His "The Four Continents" (1951) is a book of travel, reminiscence and observation. The sometimes acidic diarist James Agate commented on Sitwell after a drinking session on 3 June 1932, in Ego, volume 1, "There is something self-satisfied and having-to-do-with-the-Bourbons about him which is annoying, though there is also something of the crowned-head consciousness which is disarming".

Baronetcy and autobiography[edit]

After Sitwell's father died, in 1943, he succeeded to the baronetcy and started an autobiography that ran to four volumes: Left Hand, Right Hand (1943), The Scarlet Tree (1946), Great Morning (1948) and Laughter in the Next Room (1949). Writing in The Adelphi, George Orwell declared that, " although the range they cover is narrow, [they] must be among the best autobiographies of our time.' [4] Sitwell's autobiography was followed by a collection of essays about various people he had known, Noble Essences: A Book of Characters (1950), and a postscript, Tales my Father Taught Me (1962).

Sitwell was a friend of Queen Elizabeth, the wife of King George VI. At the time of the abdication of King Edward VIII he wrote a poem, "Rat Week", attacking those supposed friends of the King who deserted him when his alliance with Mrs Simpson became common knowledge in England. This was published anonymously and caused some scandal. The manuscript is in the library of Eton College).

Sitwell campaigned for the preservation of Georgian buildings and was responsible for saving Sutton Scarsdale Hall, now owned by English Heritage. He was an early and active member of the Georgian Group.

He also had an interest in the paranormal and joined the Ghost Club, which at the time was being relaunched as a dinner society dedicated to discussing paranormal occurrences and topics.

Death[edit]

Sitwell suffered from Parkinson's disease from the 1950s; by the mid-1960s this condition had become so severe that he needed to abandon writing. He died on 4 May 1969 in Italy, at Montegufoni, a castle near Florence which his father had bought derelict in 1909 and restored as his personal residence. The castle was left to his nephew, Reresby; most of his money was left to Horner. Sitwell was buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in Florence.

Select bibliography[edit]

  • Triple Fugue (Stories) (1924)
  • Discursions on Travel, Art and Life (Essays) (1925)
  • Before the Bombardment (Novel) (1926)
  • The Man Who Lost Himself (Novel) (1929)
  • Collected Poems and Satires (1931)
  • Miracles on Sinaï (Novel) (1934)
  • Those Were the Days (Novel) (1937)
  • A Place of One's Own (Novel) (1940)
  • Selected Poems (1943)
  • Left Hand! Right Hand! (Auto-Biography, Vol.1) (1944)
  • Sing High, Sing Low (Poems) (1944)
  • The Scarlet Tree (Auto-Biography, Vol.2) (1946)
  • Four Songs of the Italian Earth (1948)
  • Great Morning (Auto-Biography, Vol.3) (1947)
  • Laughter in the Next Room (Auto-Biography, Vol.4) (1948)
  • Noble Essences (Auto-Biography, Vol.5) (1950)
  • Tales My Father Taught Me (1962)
  • Pound Wise (Final Complete Work) (1963)

References[edit]

  1. ^ Pearson, John (1978), Façades: Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverell Sitwell, Macmillan 
  2. ^ Quotes from thumbnail publicity for the Oxford University Press edition of the novel, introduced by Victoria Glendinning.
  3. ^ Author's Preface, 1929 - 'The Man Who Lost Himself' (LTMI Ed., 2007)
  4. ^ The Adelphi, July–September 1948, reprinted in Orwell:Collected Works, It Is What I Think, p.398

External links[edit]

Baronetage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
George Sitwell
Baronet
(of Renishaw, Derbyshire)
1943–1969
Succeeded by
Sacheverell Sitwell